31 January 2011

Glass Ceilings

It sounded as if she had come up against a glass ceiling, and when I asked, she thought so too. It was only a couple of tweets. Not that I know who she is, for many of us on Twitter hide under the carapace of anonymity, though she’s a something in the City, and writes a blog. Wonderfully expressive term, ‘glass ceiling, conveys’ the idea exactly.
I was going to say that I’ve never come up against a glass ceiling, but in a way I have. Not the sexist ceiling that seems to be a normal part of the world of the ‘masters of the universe’.  My ceiling came after an enforced change of employer, when I suggested that I could ease off on the surgery and do some management. I’d worked there previously, and even then the organisation had a very strange culture, and it didn’t seem to have changed over the years. Think Stalin and gulags. I’d been having a lot of work-related neck problems — it’s almost an occupational disease — and I also had an MBA. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was there to do what the management wanted, and if I didn’t like it, well, I could leave. In reality, I was over-qualified, a threat.
There was always a fair bit of banter around at work, mostly craic, but anyone who stepped over an invisible line and made an overtly sexist comment would find himself — it was usually a him — up before some Inhuman Resources manager for a bollocking. And there was always the threat of referral to the professional body. I don’t remember anyone going round boasting of who they’d slept with, though there were always stories along the lines of ‘if you want to get the best out of the theatre sister, you have to fuck her’ and ‘there’s only room for one bull here’. 
Anyhow, all this is a world away from bankers and finance.  The reports of tribunals and litigation in the papers describe blatant sexism at work, not so much tolerated as encouraged, ‘conspicuous consumption’ of alcohol, drugs and clubbing, and the expectation that girls will accept and join in. Perhaps some of this is the quality papers trawling for ‘sleaze’.
Now I haven’t done any real, empirical research here — other than a brief look at Wikipedia, which didn’t enlighten me much. The concept of a glass ceiling has been around for quite a while, an invisible barrier to career progress. And those trapped underneath it are recognised as coming from minorities; and the largest minority is women. And these minorities think that they have been unfairly overlooked for promotion, discriminated against. And again, the minority is women.
I say ‘minority’ but this isn’t really correct; after all, there are roughly as many girls as there are boys. Moreover, it’s a throwback to the days when women didn’t have equal opportunities, or indeed many opportunities. Teaching or nursing were popular options. Or copy-typing — remember that? And then marriage, and — believe it or not — marriage often meant the end of the ‘career’. Married women were expected to give up their jobs; and if they didn’t go voluntarily, they were pushed. Really. 
Those were the days when women were the property of their father, or on marriage, the property of their husbands; legally, they hardly existed. Cultural relics from the Victorians and before. The days when the boys went into the four professions — law, medicine, the armed services: holy orders were gradually replaced by mammon, banking.
Things did gradually change from the early 1900s, and more so from the 1960s. Of course, women had worked in men’s jobs before that, but almost as a curiosity, or where there were no men to do the work, as during the wars. But in the 1960s the ‘pill’ dislocated the connection between sex and reproduction, and marriage and reproduction, and gave women control. And freedom.
And, in parallel and perhaps as a consequence, there was a new, questioning ethos; just why can’t I do that? To which there was no answer. Why not, indeed? So they did, and became self-aware, assertive.
With women entering a male-dominated workplace, equally qualified as men, might you have expected that they would have had equal opportunities? Perhaps, but it took legislation, not just for women, but also for religion and anything that marked people as ‘different’ to establish these equal opportunities. Alas, legislation doesn’t make change happen, but did expose the differences between the ’espoused’ and ‘expressed’ cultures of organisations.
Different from what? Different from the standard, accepted, received paradigm of the day, one that was (entirely) male-centred. The culture of ‘male supremacy’ was too widespread, too ingrained, too accepted as the natural way of things. The playing fields weren’t level to begin with. Sexism and the glass ceiling through which women can’t break existed together, symbiotically.
Perhaps they are an extreme case, but why do bankers and financiers behave like this? Well, women are often academically and emotionally better at many things than men, excepting perhaps theoretical physics,logic and map reading. But you don’t need these skills as a banker or financier. What you do need is the continuing ability to influence others, to get them to buy whatever bonds (junk or otherwise), securities, collateralised debt obligations, or any of the acronymically disguised wares that you don’t really understand that you have on offer. And to get them to be the buyer you need bluff, flattery, disguised perhaps, some ability at golf, a strong liver, and sex. After all, ‘sex sells’. Not that you bribe them with whores or lap dancers, though you might, rather it is the thought, the journey rather than the destination which is important. There’s almost certainly an element of the herd instinct, of the lowest common denominator and ‘group think’, where it’s important to be seen as ‘one of the boys’. A strange culture, but that’s what I read.
As a line manager to keep your team of youngish men up to speed, you need to keep their testosterone up. One of the better ways is to have a ‘bit of skirt’ around the office. But this girl can’t be seen to be better than any man, for such men have an inbuilt, congenital level of insecurity, and need their egos polished frequently. So the ‘skirt’ is there to keep the chaps going, almost as an agent provocateur, but she can’t be seen to be too successful. She will be expected to be ‘one of the boys’ in the bars and night clubs, but must not — dare not — be a real competitor. And if she actually does some useful work, well, that’s a bonus.
Sexism is a form of bullying, defined by how the recipient feels, not by what the bully felt. If you think you’ve been bullied, then you have been. And yes, in my example I was sure I’d been bullied.
There are some successful female financiers, bankers, investment managers though; they are generally described as ‘superwoman’, juggling career, children, whatever. But calling them ‘superwoman’ only confirms that they are the exception, the ones who got away. The unsuperwomen — dare I say this? — are still on the trading floor, or at their desks, doing their job, stimulating the boys and wondering, perhaps, whether it’s really worth the money, whether they should escape.

29 January 2011

*The* Woman

The modernised series of Sherlock on BBC television is impressive; plots based on the originals, but adapted, updated. A Sherlock for today. You do need to know the stories to get all the references, the details, the asides. The interplay between Holmes and Watson is really well done, just enough tension, enough suggestion, enough said and not said. Blogs and mobiles. Sherlock isn't perfect, unlike Dr Thorndyke, occasionally making not quite the right deduction; Mycroft is clearly better at this. And Sherlock is a sociopath, and needs a complement.

And Sarah is delightful — just why did I never meet girls like her when I did locums? — but there is no mention of Mary Morston.
I’ve now looked at all three episodes on DVD, as well as the pilot and the ‘other features’. Yes, research can be hard.
But, there is a major omission. She has made no appearance, there has been no mention of her name. Why not? True, she did defeat Sherlock on one occasion, but he did get her photograph as a souvenir. Actually, that eejit, the King of Bohemia gave it to him. As a woman of mystery, intrigue, she could be an ideal foil. And she was so very, very clever. Yet she’s not there. Sherlock did like opera, and did go from time to time; she was an opera singer, a contralto. In Prague she was the prima donna. Originally in the National Theatre, though the Opera is a wonderful, gilded palace — yes, of course I’ve been to the opera there. But no appearances, no references, not even the hint of a suggestion. What are they thinking of?
And where is her photograph? It was one of Sherlock’s most treasured possessions, on display for all to see. What are screenwriters, the literary agents, the producers playing at? Can we expect her to appear in the next series? I don’t care so much about any consulting criminologist — Moriarty — but I do expect some reference to her.
And there’s more. I’ve been reading her side of the story, as narrated by Penelope (Nell) Huxleigh. Alas, this poor girl has been badly served by her American literary agent. Everyone knows that 221B is pronounced two-two-one-B, yet this Yankee keeps putting two-twenty-one-B into the mouths of the characters. No Englishman or woman would ever say it so. Oh dear. And a ‘pound note’? No! Only sovereigns! And never half-sovereigns! That’s far too mean.
Now, she may have been the ‘New Jersey Lily’, but there’s really no reason for this.
And, yes, she was always the woman. And always italicised.

23 January 2011


Towards the end of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, the hero journeys through the streets of Paris; the streets are named, and with a map, you could follow his route. A reader upbraided Eco for his lack of verisimilitude, for there had been a large fire on the route he had described; why had the hero not seen this? Eco thought that the reader must have researched the Parisian papers for the particular date, to have discovered this, and described readers who look for complete accuracy in books, and check up on such details, as ‘empirical’.
I hadn’t read Foucault’s Pendulum at the time, but have read — tried to read — it now; and got to the end. It’s a very dense book, full of abstruse and arcane detail about secret, mystic societies. A book review suggested that it needed an index — when did you hear of a novel with an index?
I thought that it read more like a textbook, crammed with detail and facts. And as a textbook, the facts can be checked, and perhaps deserve to be checked. So, I wasn’t that surprised to discover that someone had done just that, and found a discrepancy. After all, if you buy a textbook and find a fault, shouldn’t you report this? And Eco’s supposition that the reader had checked the papers is, after all, only a supposition. Perhaps the reader was actually there, or somehow involved.
Now, I don’t go around checking the facts in a novel, unless I see something that seems to be clearly wrong. It might be a typo, or some detail which upsets me, some detail which I know to be wrong (or perhaps, I think I know it’s wrong), and this defect can largely destroy the atmosphere, the realism which the author has tried to build up.
I don’t really set out to be Empirical, it just happens. Perhaps it’s because I’m just too literal, perhaps it’s because I’ve read far too many non-fiction books in the belief that opinions should be based on fact. And it’s strange that my dyslexia can spot the typos, or correctly spelled but inappropriate words; I’ve recently seen ‘quite’ when ‘quiet’ was meant, for example.
I’m not looking for a career as a proof-reader, though.

19 January 2011

Specialist or Expert?

I’v just finished Charles Sale’s book The Specialist. I’ve read it before, a long time ago. You could describe it as a fictionalised sort of mini-biography. The hero, Lem Putt, is a carpenter who has decided to specialise in just one thing — apart from the occasional foray into wall paper hanging. And he demonstrates his very specialised knowledge in his work, from the design, through the siting, the decoration — in short, everything. He doesn’t build anything else, though he can make several sizes, up to what a family of eight would need. He doesn’t proffer unwanted advice beyond his speciality. He makes outdoor privies.
So, if Lem Put is a specialist, how does he differ from an expert? Forget the old saws about experts knowing more and more about less and less, or as having slides (or powerpoint presentations) and travelling. An expert feels that his specialised, limited knowledge allows him (alas, it’s usually a him) to pontificate on all sorts of other things, whether related or not.
Medical experts were once quite notorious for this. True, they did have specialised knowledge beyond the average man — or lawyer — but this also blinded them to the limitations of their knowledge. Their authority, derived from their specialism in a ‘Centre of Arrogance’ was a given, a truism and not to be challenged. It’s not so long ago that such experts warned about blindness and one of it’s causes — for which there was no other authority than moral outrage and guilt. They could devise operations based on their beliefs derived from their expert status — think of the nuciform sac.
And there were experts involved in litigation whose opinions depended on whether they were instructed by the plaintiff’s or the defendant’s lawyers, apparently unaware that their expert opinion was for the benefit of the Court, and was not expected to be partial. I gather that many judges, experienced in these matters, could read between the lines in such cases, and weigh the expert’s opinion appropriately.
Much of this is now gone; the black-and-white opinions have been replaced by grey perhapses, maybes and the like. Where there was certainty — derived from belief, now there is uncertainty, derived from evidence.

16 January 2011


Chance has no memory.
I’m not a statistician, though I did have to learn some of it years ago. I now know what a point of inflexion is, even if I didn’t then. We were taught about probability and odds, but it’s mostly a distant memory now.
Still, I can remember some of the important things. Like chance — randomness. A chance or random event can’t be forecast from previous behaviour — previous behaviour doesn’t and can’t influence the present or future. This does sound a bit like the advice given to investors, about past performance not being an indicator of the future. 
A common example of a chance event is tossing a coin; it will come down either heads or tails — if you really want to be pedantic, it might come down on edge, but let’s forget this. If it came down tails this time, it will still be either heads or tails next time, and so on. (Unless you toss it thousands of times, when something about large numbers comes into play.) Roulette wheels are supposed to be another chance event, though the advantage is always just in favour of the bank. Methods to predict the spin of the wheel may succeed if the wheel isn’t perfectly balanced — but this is then not a chance event.
Cot deaths (sudden infant death syndrome*) are seemingly random, chance events. This is a way of saying that we don’t really know what the causes of cot death are, we can only try to look for patterns. And having one cot death still leaves you at the same chance of another. You might say that there must be a cause or causes, and indeed there must be; and these causes, whether hereditary or environmental or a mixture, could well make you more likely to suffer a second.
Münchausen’s† syndrome was first described by Richard Asher, a London physician, clear thinker and father of Jane. He described patients whose symptoms were fictitious, but who sought medical attention. They might present with bleeding, strange neurological symptoms or abdominal pain — and many of the latter had multiple scars from operations.
Münchausen’s syndrome by proxy was described by Professor Sir Roy Meadow. These people harm others, often children, to draw attention to themselves. They may even kill their children, leading Sir Roy to state:  “one sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder, until proved otherwise“ . This became known as Meadow’s Law, though the research he used to be able to formulate the law was apparently “destroyed”.
You may recall the story of Sally Clark, whose first two (infant) children died suddenly, and who was subsequently convicted of their murder. Sir Roy gave ‘expert medical’ evidence at her trial, invoking some quite remarkable statistical prestidigitation — a feat for which he was not ‘expertly’ qualified. Sally Clark was freed on her second appeal, but died a few years later — a life destroyed.
Sir Roy was struck off by the General Medical Council, but this was subsequently reversed in the Courts.
More recently, the requirements for (and limitations of) expert witnesses have been significantly strengthened.

* A syndrome is a collection of three or more signs and symptoms.
† The stories of Baron von Münchausen were written by Rudolf Raspe, who after a colourful life ended up working at the copper mines in Killarney, where he died and was buried. I once met a patient with this syndrome, who had been in most of the hospitals in Ireland, including Killarney. The physician there, in a discharge note, suggested that the patient was on a pilgrimage to the grave of his ‘progenitor’.

08 January 2011

Top of the Milk

The Swiss village of Uetendorf isn’t that big, yet it has a couple of fairly large supermarkets. But there is a large underground car park, free to use for less than an hour, so the supermarkets attract customers from a much larger hinterland. Migros mostly has it’s own brand products, often direct rip-offs of the original. Thus ‘Ovomaltine’ becomes ‘Eimalzin’ — not just a copy, but a play on the name. It’s only an ‘M’ Migros (they range from M through MM to MMM), and a little cramped. The Co-op is bigger and more spacious, and sells branded goods as well as their own stuff, and is about 50 yards from Migros. Landi — a farmer’s and market gardener’s co-operative — is a few minutes walk away.
Out shopping the other day, I counted the varieties of milk in Migros and the Co-op; both shops each had around a dozen different varieties of milk. Cows’ milk, that is. Not just ‘milk’, but semi-skimmed and skimmed — and lactose-free varieties of these — and milk fortified with calcium and vitamin D and… I was a little disappointed to see that the ‘Pregnant Woman’s Milk’ and the ‘Children’s Milk’ have both disappeared. But then, around 80% of new food products fail. Most milk is in tetra-paks or similar, some is in plastic bottles (which, of course, are recyclable.) The vogue for milk in bags — requiring you to buy a special jug to be able to pour it out — has passed.
All of these ‘varieties’ of milk are long life, homogenised and ‘standardised’. They also have fresh milk — but by then I was getting bored counting the varieties. Milk here certainly tastes better than in norn iron — Swiss farmers don’t make silage.
There is also a machine outside the bakery which sells milk fresh from the farm — bring your own container. This milk is about twice the price of the supermarkets. You are told to heat the milk to 70°C, though it doesn’t say for how long. I haven’t tried this, but I imagine that you would get ‘top of the milk’.
‘Top of the milk’ was always a favourite for the breakfast cereal, in the days when milk was delivered to the door, and came in bottles. We got ‘silver top’ which was the ordinary milk, though there was ‘gold top’ from Jersey cows which was creamier. The bottles were sealed with foil caps, hence silver or gold. Top of the milk is nothing more than cream, but now that milk is homogenised we don’t get this. And although cream seems thick and heavy, because it rises to the top, its density is less than that of milk.
You had to wash and return the pint milk bottles. During ‘The Troubles’ milk bottles were used for petrol bombs — and it’s said that the police and the dairies used to keep track of just how many bottles went missing, trying to predict attacks.
Years ago, we stayed on a farm, and I could drink milk straight from the cow. Quite literally, straight from the cow, and before it had been pasteurised — this was then done on the farm. I didn’t like this warm milk, and it did taste rather odd — certainly different from ‘real’ milk out of bottles.
Around this time I had a persistent low-grade temperature — a pyrexia of unknown origin or PUO — and was off school for a term or more. I was even in hospital and had tests — a chest x-ray and so on. And someone tried to encourage me to cough and collect the phlegm — but I didn’t have any. This seem to have settled spontaneously, I never had any treatment — or any explanation. 
Looking back, it’s clear that they suspected that I had TB, but were unable to confirm this. More accurately, they though I had pulmonary tuberculosis. I may well have had abdominal TB from drinking the cows’ milk — not such a severe problem, and one that often settles over time. 
At least the TB problem is now — or should be — secured. But we still have these dozen or so assorted varieties of cows’ milk. Do we really need this variety? The retailers generally respond to such questions with ‘the housewife demands it’ — and it’s always the ‘housewife’ and never the ‘houseman’ that they refer to. I suspect that the market for milk in terms of quantity is pretty saturated, and the only hope of more sales (and more profit) comes from these niche products. So it’s not really what the housewife wants (or even needs), more it’s what the retailers need to sell.
And by the way, Migros has seven varieties of hens’ eggs; the Coop only has four. And as for butter and cream…

PS: Was in the local Tesco supermarket. They seem to have sixteen varieties of milk -- I got slightly cross-eyed trying to count them all. And that doesn't include strawberry flavoured milk, nor buttermilk. Tesco has something like 11 varieties of eggs.

04 January 2011

I meet a guru

I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat Love Pray over the New Year holidays. It’s an account of a sabbatical year, eating in Italy, praying in India and finding love in Bali. There is quite a lot about meditation throughout, not just in the Indian bit, where she goes to an ashram.
The meditation bit, and the frequent references to gurus reminded me of the only time that I met a guru, though it was many years ago. I was doing a course on Creativity with the Open University. Creativity was widely interpreted, between innovation and adaptation. We had a course textbook and a manual describing hundreds of creative methods. One technique they suggested we try was meditation, to seek out a guru. We were told to relax, as I remember, in a dimly lit environment, breathe quietly and think of our journey or quest to find and then question the guru, who presumably had the answers to whatever our problems were.
So, I sat and meditated, not in the traditional cross-legged position, but in a comfortable chair. As instructed, I thought of this journey. It started in some far off country, down in a valley, green and lush as these valleys always are. I walked along the valley, upwards towards the mountains where the guru would be. Quite why gurus should sit and meditate on mountain tops was a question I never got answered.
Anyhow, I walked and walked, gradually out of this lush, verdant valley, and upwards to the mountains. I could see my guru from a long way off, sitting not on a mountain top, but on a col between two mountains. I approached him quietly, but he must have heard me coming. As I approached, he turned and looked directly at me. He was an old man, grey haired and with a long grey beard, and a calm, beatific face, the personification of all gurus. He looked at me steadily for a while before he spoke.
“Fuck off!” said the guru.
I’ve never tried meditating again.